Freddy Recke was my journeyman. We were working on an absorber at a hotel on Revere Beach. A pump motor had gone out and we had to work overtime to get it replaced. Freddy had walked along the beach, shirtless, at noon, his hairy back absorbing the rays of the strong, springtime sun. But that’s not the scene.
The scene is this: It’s late at night. The job is finished, and the absorber is rattling and popping away, making 44 degree chilled water, and Freddy and I are out by his truck trying to wash the Never Seize off our hands. Never Seize, graphite-based lubricant, is Freddy’s second favorite substance after coffee. He calls it, for some reason, "Never Sez." He wants to coat the world in it. That way, when we take the world apart the next time, it’ll come easier. Freddy, cup of coffee in one hand, throws me a can of penetrating oil. “What’s this for?” I say.
“It’s the only thing that cuts the Never Sez," he says. “Go ahead. Spray it on your hands.” Then he throws me one of those pink rags they sell at the automotive stores. “They say it’s bad for your organs,” he adds. I pause in the midst of spraying hands.
“Oh yeah?” I say.
“Yeah,” he says. “They say it attacks them. But, whatever. I’m still around.”
The oil cuts through the gray Never Size and leaves my hands with an antiqued look, the cracks between callouses all accentuated. I’m making about four dollars an hour now and sharing a two-bedroom apartment with three girls (none of which are a romantic interest), across from St. Joseph’s hospital in Lowell. I’m saving up for a pipe wrench. I guess I’ll need a pipe wrench if I’m going to be a mechanic someday.
The older mechanics like Freddy were larger than life to me. I’m sure, if I were Sigmund Freud, I’d have some interesting insights as to why I held them in such high regard. Like, my father, always the one to work around the house, never let me do anything other than hold a piece of wood or hold a tool or fetch a tool. He never let me do the actual cool stuff. And this type of work, compared to the work he did every day which involved, so said my mother, some kind of “engineering”. As a child, of course, I always imagined him wearing a conductor’s cap and swinging one of those lanterns. And then I got older, but still I didn’t know what he actually did for a living. All I knew was that he fixed lawn mowers and motorcycles and cars when he was at home. It seemed to me that this was what a man must do. Fix things. And then, suddenly, these amazing professional mechanics actually wanted me to help them. They told me to torque bolts and remove bolts and gather up bolts and spread Never Seize all over bolts.
I didn’t know anything about working with my hands when I started in the trade. Not a damn thing. I remember being embarrassed, for instance, while working with a mechanic named Steve Deluca, when he handed me a pipe wrench and told me to remove a union on some gas piping. I tried to remove it, unaware that a pipe wrench only works in one direction, the jaws automatically tightening and the teeth angling in that same direction for grip. I remember Steve Deluca laughing loudly and saying, “Don’t you even know how to use a pipe wrench?” I also remember him telling all the other mechanics about it.
I was not satisfied with myself. I couldn’t be. For one thing, I didn’t know how an absorber worked. I had no idea what role the pump we had replaced played in the operation of the absorption cycle. I just did what Freddy told me to do. And in the end, the machine just somehow. . .worked. I was afraid that I’d never know enough to be a mechanic. That the knowledge was somehow genetically passed down from mechanic to mechanic and my father, after all, wasn’t a professional mechanic. In fact, I now recalled a number of things my father couldn’t fix and needed to bring in to have repaired. I worried about my lack of mechanical knowledge the same way I worried about my lack of belongings. I’d look around my parents’ house and wonder at how they ever got all that stuff. A washing machine. A car. Two cars, in fact. A house. A lawn mower. All that stuff. Pots and pans. Beds and dressers and couches. How did they do it? I worried about everything. I thought I would be unable to fit into the world. I thought everyone knew some secret and I wasn’t in on it. I had to drive to different jobs every day all around the city of Boston and more often than not, I was utterly lost. But everyone else seemed to know exactly where they were going. They had these red and white map books back then with spiral bindings and you had to look up the town and then you’d look up the street name and then try to find it on the map and then try to find it in real life. I’d always be late for my jobs and my journeymen would always be pissed off with me. I was worried I’d get fired. And why wouldn’t they fire me? Maybe because I was only making four dollars an hour. Maybe that’s why. But at the time, I thought four dollars was a lot. In another two or three weeks, I’d be able to buy that pipe wrench, which I now knew how to use. What kind of a fool didn’t know how to use a pipe wrench?
I worried about almost everything. What if I wasn’t good at sex? How would I ever get a girl? What if I was too skinny? What if my dick was too small? What if my skin was too white? What if the penetrating oil attacked my organs? What if I had dirty hands when I went out to the disco clubs? What if I never learned enough to be like Freddy Recke? And who wouldn’t want to be like Freddy? Other than the hairy back thing. He was a well-respected mechanic. He had a certain gravitas with customers and salesmen and other mechanics. They all listened when he spoke. When I spoke, they did not listen. And why should they have listened?
After we wash our hands with penetrating oil, Freddy calls his wife on a payphone.
(Ha. A payphone.)
“Whatever you want, honey,” he is saying. “No. Not that. What if you just pick up some Chinese? I don’t know. What about a poo poo platter? Why don’t you just pick up a poo poo platter?”
They are going to order a poo poo platter. I have never, not in my whole 19 years of life, ordered Chinese food for myself. I grew up in a family where we almost never ordered out and the idea of someone just. . .ordering Chinese food for dinner seems like the most extravagant thing in the world.
(This memory is crystal clear:)
Freddy. In the darkness of Revere Beach. The polluted smell of the ocean washes over us. And Freddy is talking about ordering Chinese food with his wife. Whom, I was sure, he is having sex with. And they’ll probably drink alcohol. And then they’ll probably have sex. After they eat their poo poo platter.
(It all seemed so distant to me. So far beyond what I could even hope to achieve.)
Freddy drives home to wherever he is from. And I drive to Lowell, hungry. Having earned a few hours of overtime that night. Time and a half. Which would be. . .let’s see. . .four divided by two all added to four. . .
That was over thirty years ago. St Joseph’s closed down a few years ago. Freddy moved to Florida, where he could walk around with his shirt off all year round. For a little while. He died of stomach cancer, I was told, fifteen years ago or so. And I always think about all the coffee he drank. All the time. And all the Never Seize he used. And the penetrating oil. And the Chinese food.
Everyone agrees that time travel is impossible. But I’d like to say, at the risk of sounding esoteric, that’s such bullshit. We travel in time all the time. We’re doing it now. And now. And now.
That machine we were working on thirty years ago, I know now, was a Trane “A” machine. There are very few still in operation. I, personally, haven’t worked on since that one day with Freddy. After the “A” machine, Trane came out with the “Classic" machine and then “Horizon” and now, they've ceased to manufacture absorbers altogether. I recently returned from Trane absorber seminar in LeCrosse, Wisconsin. The instructor said, “How many of you have ever worked on an A machine?” I raised my hand. I was the only one. Quite a distinction. I was very proud of myself. I didn’t mention that I hadn’t known what the hell I was doing. And, at the time, I had just learned how a pipe wrench operated. And I certainly didn’t say anything about Freddy Recke, my hero or about Florida or stomach cancer. These are things one doesn’t say. Because, who gives a fuck?
Freddy used to troubleshoot things using a jumper wire with alligator clips he wore around his neck like a necklace. He'd remove the wire and jump out one safety, and then another until the machine came to life. That’s how simple the circuits were then. That’s the technology I had been so intimidated by. Now, as we all know, there are many different voltages – ac and dc – and there are programs that run certain logic and occasional illogic and there is way too much for any one person to know. There are engineers, like my father, to dream the shit up. And there are chip manufacturers and building automation specialists and there are guys like me who, if this technology were a river, would be like a dead tree standing dead still, disturbing the smooth surface with my swirling chevron of incompetence. I don’t worry that I will never know enough. Because I know damn well I’ll never know enough. To be so sure of this one thing is soothing to me.
Sometimes, I pick up dinner at China Garden. It’s a small, dark Chinese restaurant two stores down from the Coralville Hy Vee. The food is not good. But it’s not bad either. They have a small TV there and it’s always tuned to a sports channel. Women’s softball. Or baseball. Or women’s basketball. Or football. Or beach volleyball. They have hot water always heated in a coffee pot and free green tea. I always drink green tea while I wait for our meal. I’m not always grateful. But lately, I’m becoming more grateful. I love this dirty little Chinese restaurant. And I love our little ranch home in Coralville. Which, one year ago, was a two-story rental home in Coralville. And three years ago was a tenement in Newton. And another place before that. I love my job fixing large chillers for Trane. I feel honored to be allowed to work there. I love my wife. I know it sounds like I’ve had too much coffee or something. And I am drinking coffee. But it’s decaf. I don’t think it’s the chemicals that is making me, lately, so grateful for these things in my life. For my children. For my friends. For America. For the world. For my dog. And, again, for my wife. It’s the idea that it’s all so temporary. That we’re all traveling in time. I always get this feeling like it’s my last day and I’ve been given this gift, to drive around and do these routine things I have grown so fond of over these years. Just one more time. Sometimes, when I’m waiting for my order, I think of Freddy walking along Revere Beach with his shirt off. He didn’t give a shit. He liked how the sun felt.